About this Show

Democracy Now

News/Business. Independent global news hour featuring news headlines, in depth interviews and investigative reports. (CC) (Stereo)




San Francisco, CA, USA

Comcast Cable

Channel 89 (615 MHz)






Maya 9, Palenque 9, Us 9, Landa 8, Tsa 5, Sumer 4, David Stuart 3, Copan 3, Matthews 3, George Stuart 2, David Webster 2, Barbara 2, Peter Matthews 2, Balam 2, Heaven 2, Mesopotamia 2, Ba 2, Kan 1, Maya God 1, Kukhowil 1,
Borrow a DVD
of this show
  LINKTV    Democracy Now    News/Business. Independent global news hour featuring news  
   headlines, in depth interviews and investigative reports....  

    December 14, 2012
    3:00 - 4:00pm PST  

funding for this program was provided by... in honduras, archaeologists piece together fragments of an ancient message. what secrets could these symbols reveal about life among the maya ? from ancient sumer, clay tablets reveal astonishing details about daily life 5,000 years ago, and tell the story of the invention of writing. symbols can be the gateway to the hearts and minds of ancient people. their decipherment is one of the greatest challenges
facing archaeologists today. we humans are social animals. our need to communicate is universal.
some of our messages can be easily understood. but we communicate, too, through abstract symbols that have meaning only within a particular culture. these symbols take many forms. the flag is a symbol. a gesture says, "we're number one." the uniform is a symbol that identifies the official and the player. the game itself is symbolic -- ritualized combat with clearly defined rules. even sound can be a symbol. [ whistle blows ] the whistle signals the end of play. but why a whistle ? why not a gong ? why a striped shirt and not a plaid one ? the choice is arbitrary. but within this culture,
the meaning is mutually accepted. the use of symbols is the single most distinguishing feature of any culture. but as distinct as they are, all symbols are used for the same purpose -- to communica, manipulate, and preserve information. the circle of coral symbolizes the night sky. but this lesson depends on the use of language, a symbolic system in which arbitrary sounds are joined together and given meaning. of all symbolic systems,
language best communicates very complex ideas. here, celestial navigation is taught on a south pacific island. we begin to learn language and other symbolic systems at birth. in time, they become a part of who we are and how we perceive the world. still, it's difficult for those of us in one culture to fully understand the symbolic systems of another. for archaeologists, the task is even more complex. the cultures they study can no longer be directly observed. archaeologist david webster. webster: suppose i came into this stadium a week, or even a century, after all the people left. how would i figure out what happened here ? what this arena was used for ? this is the dilemma facing archaeologists.
symbols are of fundamental importance in understanding any human culture because they're so laden with meaning. but they're not very durable, and even if we find them, often we can't decode them. in this case, though, i'm in luck because of this -- writing. writing is a set of graphic symbols that is directly or indirectly related to language. keach: we use writing to convey very specific information, from introducing team members to explaining the referee's hand signals. this detailed guide brings the stadium to life. but archaeology is never this simple. archaeologists rarely find program notes to ancient societies. if writing exists in a society, it usually serves very specific purposes. and like any other kind of symbolic system, it has to be decoded and deciphered. in fact, comprehending ancient symbolic systems of all kinds is one of the most difficult tasks that archaeologists face.
keach: copan, home of the ancient maya in western honduras. a rich legacy of architecture and art has been found here -- symbols of another time left to be read by scientists today. early explorers made careful drawings of these sites. they thought the ornate monuments contained writing -- writing that, in time, would reveal the history of the ancient ruins. in 1840, explorer john lloyd stephens wrote, "standing as they do "in the depth of a tropical forest,
"silent and solemn, "their whole history so entirely unknown..." "with hieroglyphics explaining all, "but perfectly unintelligible. "who shall read them ?" could anyone read these odd markings ? for more than a century, they tried. but the story of the maya people, if these glyphs could reveal it, remained locked in stone. had the maya recorded their history ? many ancient people who used writing did not. in fact, writing was first used for a very different purpose. around 8000 b.c., the world's earliest farmers had settled in mesopotamia, a region of the middle east that includes iraq and iran. in their hands, desert became rich farmland, as iigation agriculture was born.
the people bartered for goods and paid taxes. record-keeping was begun, with goods represented by abstract tokens. these led to writing, according to denise schmandt-besserat, professor of mid-eastern studies. schmandt-besserat: each of these shapes was meaningful. the cone probably stood for a unit of grain, a small unit of grain. the disc probably for an even larger unit of grain. one animal -- and one animal meaning in the middle east one goat or one sheep. so how do the tokens lead to writing ? well, it took a long time. keach: it took nearly 4,000 years. but around 3500 b.c., in a culture known as sumer, the world's first cities emerged. now, a more complex economy required more complex record-keeping. accountants took a ball of clay
which they poked inside with the fingers to make a cavity. you know, it's just like a tennis ball of clay or even smaller. and once they had a good cavity, they would put inside tokens, and then a flap would be put on top, and all of this was closed. and we are in pre-writing time. and at that time every sumerian had a seal. and when the stone is pressed onto the surface of the envelope, it leaves then a design which is then the mark of the person or the administration involved. keach: with these seals, up to four parties could sign a transaction. these envelopes could hold several tokens securely.
but there was no way to know the contents until accountants began to press the tokens into the clay before dropping them inside. the system quickly evolved. it did not take a long time for these accountants to realize "why should we have this complicated system ?" they could just as well have a ball of clay upon which they would impress signs. and these are the first clay tablets. they d not need, any longer, to put the tokens inside. keach: and so the ancient accountants took yet another step towards writing. instead of pressing the tokens into the clay, they began to draw them. and they began to use abstract numbers. previously, a token was impressed once for each measure it represented.
12 impressions meant 12 jars of oil. now, the commodity was drawn once. a jar of oil. tokens symbolized numbers. a sphere meant 10, and a cone meant 1. so on this tablet is recorded 10, 11, 12 jars of oil. the number of graphic symbols was expanded quickly, as scribes sought to express more complex ideas. a star shape, to represent god or heaven. a head plus a bowl, for the verb "to eat." over time, the symbols themselves evolved into the wedge-shaped characters called cuneiform. but the greatest advance came when scribes began to use cuneiform to represent the sounds of spoken sumerian. the word "an" meant "heaven" but was also used to represent the sound "an" in words like "anbar," meaning "iron"
and "anta", meaning "above." for the very first time in human history, people could make a permanent record of their spoken language. but sumerian hasn't been spoken since about 2000 b.c. how could these markings be read ? professor erle leichty. leichty: we get passages that we don't understand, and we get tablets that we have extreme difficulty reading, but we do know the language. we know it primarily because of ancient dictionaries. the people that lived at the time made bilingual dictionaries between akkadian and sumerian. and akkadian is a semitic language closely related to hebrew and arabic. so that was much easier for us. keach: the tablets contained specific records of day-to-day living. the world's oldest known medical text, with remedies of snake skin, turtle shell and figs.
a detailed map of the ancient city of nippur. even the price of tin in the twenty-first century b.c. historian marvin powell. in this line we see the amount of silver written across here. and in this line we see the amount of tin that it buys. and after this we also find the name of the individual, a chap called lucin from nippur, who was engaged in the tin trade. keach: names and places, professions and materials from the ancient world come to life. the tablets offer astonishing details of a way of life that ended thousands of years ago.
but the sumerian symbols held more than a story of business. they preserved centuries of hymns, poems, myths -- even an early version of the biblical tale of noah and the great flood. writing has helped reveal the history of ancient sumer. in the heartland of the maya, another time capsule awaits discovery. what stories lie locked within these strange symbols ? decipherment of the maya glyphs began with the discovery of rare maya books, survivors of the tropical climate and the spanish conquest. archaeologist george stuart. stuart: this is a color facsimile of the dresden codex -- actual size, real colors. it's made on, like the others, on bark paper sized with lime plaster, on which the images were painted
with fine hair brushes and pigment in about, oh, five or six different colors. keach: many of these books were discovered by the sixteenth century spanish. they were said to be filled with genealogies, prophesies and religious beliefs. but to the spanish conquerors, they were blasphemous. in 1562, bishop diego de landa ordered them destroyed. "we found a large number of books in these characters, "and as they contained nothing "in which there were not to be seen "superstition and lies of the devil, "we burned them all, "which caused them much affliction." ironically, a book by bishop landa himself proved crucial to the understanding of maya writing. stuart: and in it is everything that he observed in yucatan about the maya, about their ceremonial cycles, their ritual calendars. he even had pictures of the glyphs drawn to put in the manuscript. and without that, we would know very little
firsthand about the maya. keach: with landa as a guide, the nature of the ancient maya books became clear. they were almanacs used by priests to plan rituals. the bars and dots are numbers -- a dot for one, a bar for five. these two symbols formed the basis of a highly sophisticated mathematical system. it was used to record the movements of venus and of the moon and sun. astronomical events were linked to events on earth through elaborate calculations of time. stuart: they were operating with a fairly complicated kind of calendar. it counted the days in several systems. there was a 260-day cycle, a 365-day cycle, and then there was the great overriding cycle by which they really tamed eternity. and that was the long count. keach: with the long count, the maya measured time from a beginning point thousands of years in the past.
on this stela, or freestanding monument at copan, long count glyphs compute the passage of 1,403,800 days since the maya calendar began. beyond the long count, the maya also noted this date in ritual, lunar, and solar calendars. all of this to record a single day. and when was that on the western calendar ? archaeologists again referred to landa's book. bishop landa said that, hey, these people are celebrating new year's day on 12 kan, zero pop, and that's july 16, 1556. and knowing that, and knowing that an eclipse is mentioned on a certain date in the dresden codex, we can begin to put all of those together and come up with a system that matches and is consistent throughout. keach: archaeologists could now place the maya
in the context of world history. most maya inscriptions date from a.d. 300 to 900. but what had they written ? the meaning of the other glyphs remained a mystery. a bizarre picture of the maya was beginning to emerge. stuart: these texts were accompanied by figures, scenes. and since they didn't understand anything but the dates, there was no way of telling who was depicted or what the scene was about. and thinking that perhaps the figures were priests, and here was a gentle people obsessed with time and nothing else, the maya began to take on a non-human aspect. here was the strangest race of people that ever lived -- sort of gentle astronomers, forever gazing toward the sky and never doing anything that other people did.
keach: twentieth century scholars wanted to believe in an idealized maya past -- no wars, no power struggles, no economic turmoil. but in the 1940s, evidence uncovered at magnificent ruins like palenque in northern mexico began to change this notion of a peaceful maya. archaeologists investigated a structure known as the "temple of the inscriptions." the building's upper level seemed imposingly solid. but beneath it, archaeologists discovered a hidden staircase.
it had been deliberately blocked with rubble in ancient times. it took three years to clear the debris. a hundred feet down, at the base of the staircase, lay one of the most magnificent maya tombs ever found. at its heart lay a limestone sarcophagus. might these images carved on its surface reveal more about the ancient grave site ? archaeologist peter matthews. in 1952, the hieroglyphics could not be read either in this tomb inscription or anywhere else at palenque, apart from the dates. and it was considered at that stage that most of the burials that were dug up were those of priests. keach: the burial itself was proof of the extraordinary power and wealth of the deceased.
the entire temple had been constructed around his elaborate tomb. but who was buried within ? a jade portrait had masked his face. would the rich symbolism reveal the dead man's true identity ? in 1960, archaeologist tatiana proskouriakoff provided an answer. her discovery launched a revolution in maya studies. for three decades, proskouriakoff had been drawing archaeologically based reconstructions of maya sites. the grand maya ruins were interpreted as vast ceremonial centers, the sites of elaborate rituals. carved monuments were thought to portray maya priests and gods. the extensive inscriptions carved on them were thought to have no historical value. but here in piedras negras, guatemala, the dates on the monuments struck proskouriakoff as very curious. several of the stelae at this remarkable site
bear scenes like this. footsteps lead from the base of the stela up along a ladder, then disappear into a niche, to reveal a seated figure. was this a maya god ? on stelae like this, proskouriakoff noted two prominent dates. the first was always followed by this glyph. the second, between one and three decades later, was followed by this glyph. the pattern of the dates together with the scene depicted led to a startling hypothesis. perhaps these stelae depicted not gods, but kings, maya kings on their ascent to power. might the glyphs have recorded their births and ascent to the throne ? proskouriakoff carefully charted these dates.
then she theorized that as each new ruler was seated the previous ruler had died. from the birth of one ruler to the ascent of the next, the span of dates never exceeded a human lifetime. clearly, this is not a portrait of a god, but of a young king on a throne. from below, he is watched by a woman -- perhaps his wife or mother. for the first time, the glyphs were revealing maya history. stuart: somebody came up and said "you hear that tatiana is working on a dynasty, "a king list from piedras negras ?" and everybody went, "oh, come on, this just can't be true." and i remember that vividly. and then i remember afterwards, when the publication came out, how clear it all looked. it was as if we only had a hint of what the maya were. we thought they were astronomers and priests. and then all of a sudden, the glass is wiped clean, and there are people looking through.
there are kings and mothers and children and regular people. it was a very refreshing time. keach: so the ancient glyphs might reveal grand stories of the maya rulers. still, scholars could only interpret isolated symbols. to read the ancient texts, they would have to understand the spoken language. in the bustling marketplace of a mexican village, archaeologists find traces of the ancient maya system of symbols. they can be seen in the traditional patterns of brightly colored clothing. they can be heard in the mayan languages still spoken in central america. over the centuries, the words have changed,
but still they echo the past. the maya have not used hieroglyphs since the sixteenth century, when spanish bishop landa made his observations of life in the yucatan. at that time, landa recorded what he called a mayan a-b-c. but this alphabet didn't make sense until scholars realized that landa had misunderstood just how the maya wrote. linda schele deciphers mayan texts. the maya used two kinds of signs to spell things. one is called a logograph because it represents a whole word. the other is a phonetic sign that represents a syllable. for instance, if they wanted to spell the word "jaguar," they could just use a picture of the animal. the word for "jaguar" in maya is "balam," okay ?
now any maya who saw the jaguar head is going to say "balam," just like you're an english speaker, you see the jaguar, you'd say "jaguar." but there is more than one cat. so they could draw their jaguar head... and they could put a sign in front of it that tells you how to pronounce the first part of the word as "ba." this is "ba." or they could put at the end of it a sign that tells you whathe final sound was. this is a "ma". but they could also if they wanted to just eliminate the jaguar head and spell it completely with syllables, so that you would have "ba..." "la..."
"ma." and you don't pronounce the last "a". keach: the glyphs recorded by bishop landa were, in fact, syllables -- 27 syllables. but hundreds of syllables were needed to record ancient mayan. maya scribes often carved these glyphs in fanciful ways to resemble animals or people. the creativity and innovation of maya scribes is one of the joys and challenges of deciphering.
david stuart, george stuart's son, has been decoding maya glyphs since he was a boy. today, he is one of the world's leading epigraphers, scholars who decipher ancient texts. stuart: the decipherment process may begin with a single inscription or a single glyph in an inscription that will provide a really telling clue about what the phonetic value for the sign might be. to look at an example, there's an inscription from a site in northern yucatan that has a glyph that makes use of this sign that no one can read or could read before. and it's one of two signs in the spelling. the first one is one we actually know from landa's original alphabet, "ma." and here is our unknown sign. and we know from the glyphs around it that it's talking about a certain individual who is an artist. keach: together, these two glyphs form a word that describes an individual. it begins with the glyph on the left, "ma."
in a mayan-spanish dictionary, stuart looks for mayan words that begin with "ma." stuart: and it turns out that "mats" means one who is knowledgeable or wise. and so "mats" seems to make sense in this context, and we can use that to propose that the second previously unknown sign might be "tsa." so you get the spelling "ma-tsa" for "mats," or someone who is wise. keach: so the glyph on the right might read "tsa." the last "a" is not pronounced, so the word is "mats." can the "tsa" glyph be confirmed elsewhere ? in different handwriting, it looks like this as discovered in this stone carving. the glyph accompanies a scene that shows a woman conjuring up a spirit. below the "tsa" glyph is a known glyph, "ku." together they spell "tsak,"
a mayan word meaning "to conjure." and the "tsa" glyph is confirmed. it can be added to this chart of known maya syllables. "tsa." but many glyphs convey ideas and imagery not found in dictionaries. these words and images are symbols to be interpreted in the context of an ancient culture. this glyph right here is the verb of this monument, and we expect that because it comes after the calendrical information above it. and it's probably referring to bloodletting. and you can see represented a human hand with droplets coming down from between the fingers, probably represents blood. keach: blood was an essential element in maya rituals. maya paintings depict the gruesome sacrifice of captives. according to the spanish, the maya offered blood to appease their gods.
maya nobles committed excruciating acts of self-mutilation. here, a woman pulls a rope embedded with thorns through her tongue. by spilling blood, the nobles believed they could communicate with powerful ancestral spirits. this monument commemorates another bloodletting -- but whose ? stuart: in the glyphs that follow, we have the name of the person who is the subject of the sentence -- the one who let the blood. and in this case it's the king of copan. he has various titles that tell us that, for instance, here -- the number "13" -- that he was the thirteenth king in the sequence. now lastly, we have the personal name of the king. and you can see here another number using, in this case, three dots with three bars, being 18. and then finally a head of an animal, which is a rabbit. and this is the name of "18 rabbit." keach: "18 rabbit" -- an odd name.
but he was one of copan's greatest kings. he reigned from a.d. 695 to 738. on monuments, he's portrayed as a great warrior and shown to communicate with powerful ancestors. a wealth of inscriptions at copan tell of bloody rituals, sacred anniversaries, and political alliances with rulers of other maya kingdoms. for the first time in centuries, the ancient maya were speaking for themselves. at palenque, in southern mexico, their voices revealed a grand dynasty that ruled for 10 generations. [ mix of voices speaking maya and english ] 1,330 years after the new era began...
he was born, kan xul, the child of the mother... ...5 months, 14 days after he had been born, he then crowned himself on march 11, 431. keach: the mightiest voice in palenque belonged to the man buried beneath the temple of the inscription. archaeologist peter matthews. matthews: we can now read this entire inscription. it begins over here with the date, the verb of which is recorded here, saying literally, "he was born." it then moves directly into another date, and these numbers here represent 4 followed by the glyph for a 20-year period here. so 4 times 20 years,
or roughly 80 years between those two dates. then we get a glyph here giving the event of the second date, he died. and then the name of the person who both was born and died, the great son, pacal, shown here by a shield sign, which is read "pacal" in mayan. finally, to end this first passage, we get "the holy lord of palenque," indicating that he was the king of palenque. keach: a king at the age of 12, pacal left a wealth of inscriptions that traces his lineage back six generations. his sons carried the lineage forward, to reveal a phenomenal record of a ruling maya dynasty. but the writing also revealed an abrupt and puzzling break in the dynastic succession.
this is the palace, begun by pacal and continued by his sons, including kan xul. work began on an elaborate tablet that would commemorate kan xul's dedication of the building. the tablet contains detailed information about kan xul's life -- his birth date, his parents' names, his brother's reign as king, and finally the rise to pwer of kan xul himself. but kan xul never dedicated the building at palenque. the last fragments of the tablet name a different king. matthews: the dedication which we would have expected to have been undertaken by kan xul -- and the entire text is leading up to that event -- was in fact undertaken by someone else, so that this posed something of a problem for us in our earlier interpretations of this tablet. why is a new individual coming in on the scene
for this very important ceremony that the entire tablet was leading up to ? keach: at another kingdom, 50 miles south of palenque, archaeologists found the answer. matthews: we discovered a monument at tonina in which kan xul is portrayed as a captive. he still has a royal diadem on his forehead, but on his thigh is carved his name glyph and a glyph saying "lord of palenque." so we are under no doubt that kan xul was captured by a king, by his contemporary ruler from the nearby site of tonina. keach: maya rulers portrayed themselves as fierce warriors. kings celebrated the defeat of rivals in carvings like this. across the centuries, a rope-bound captive pleads for mercy. archaeologists now believe it was war
and not peaceful stargazing that motivated the detailed star charts of the maya. the moon and the sun may have guided planting and harvesting. but the appearance of venus signaled a time for war. kan xul fell victim to such a war. but because maya kings used writing to create the impression of power and authority, kan xul's successors never mention his defeat. to archaeologists, the lesson is clear. you can't believe everything you read. what that means for the archaeologist is that you always have to find independent kinds of evidence to try to see how reliable certain kinds of information is. for example, if a maya king portrays himself as a powerful warrior, is there any other independent evidence in the form of fortifications or captives or ceremonies
or burials or whatever, which would lead you to expect that warfare was going on on a fairly large scale ? sometimes there is. sometimes there isn't. keach: the carved steps of the hieroglyphic stairway at copan are an excellent example of maya political propaganda. covered with 1,300 glyphs, these steps form the longest single inscription in mesoamerica. archaeologist bill fash. fash: the hieroglyphic stairway represents an encyclopedia of copan history. what it's saying is that copan is a powerful kingdom. it has been from its inception, and all of the copan kings were great warriors. the interesting thing is, when you look at the archaeological context of the stairway, you realize that all was not well in river city. keach: workers enter a tunnel behind the staircase. twelve centuries earlier,
other workers had built the hieroglyphic stairs on top of an existing building. the space between was filled with rubble, which was usually densely packed. this fill is very loose. why such shoddy construction ? was it evidence that the king who commissioned the stairway had little support among his workers ? what had gone wrong ? once again, a maya king had been killed by a rival kingdom. at copan, that king was 18 rabbit. the hieroglyphic staircase was built by his successors in a symbolic attempt to assert the status of copan's ruling dynasty. so in fact, we believe the stairway
is a beautiful example of political propaganda. they were trying to make up for the fact that they lost the thirteenth king in war by projecting an image of all of the copan kings as glorious and powerful warriors. keach: and so the elaborate inscriptions of the ancient maya were created largely to bolster the power of their rulers. 3,000 years before the maya, and thousands of miles away in ancient mesopotamia, the sumerians used writing for a very different purpose -- the creation of political, religious and literary texts. and the primary use -- economic record-keeping. i think one reason why sumer had such a different orientation with regard to its writing system is that their economic system was very much more complicated. they had a much more urban-based economy
with a lot more craft specialization and a lot more trade. and i think that the basis of mesopotamian society needed a lot more managerial, administrative control. and so, writing reflects that. writing is one of the tools that allows you to do that. keach: scribes formed a professional class within the sumerian bureaucracy. the ability to write meant a job and a chance for social mobility. people from professions such as smiths could send their sons to scribal school so that they could learn the scribal art and then move up in the professions. generally, if one had risen to be a scribe, he would try to encourage his son also to go to scribal school and learn the scribal art so that he, too, could become a successful bureaucrat. keach: were the maya scribes also bureaucrats ? not likely. the maya and sumerian economies were very different.
who, then, were the maya painters and carvers ? except for their art work, they left little record of themselves. but occasionally, they signed their names. several signatures crowd the base of this stela from piedras negras. a bat glyph precedes each signature, and means "the carving of." the glyphs below each bat name the carver. these scribes were first identified by david stuart. and it's interesting that some of them are actually called "ahau," or "lord," so they seem to be very high-ranking people. they are not a separate class of artists that would come in and work on these elite monuments and then leave. they were really an important part of the high-ranking social make-up of maya society. and there's a wonderful example that really illustrates this clearly.
this is from a painted vessel, not a stone monument, but it has a very clear signature of the artist. and it says it is the painting of a certain individual. and what's so interesting is that the rest of this text talks about the mother and the father of the artist, saying that he's the child of the queen and of the king of naranjo. keach: the son of the king was a maya scribe. here was a culture where literacy itself was a symbol of status. archaeologist bill sanders. sanders: the writing system i doubt was understood by more than 10% or 20% of the population. the rest of the population, i am sure understood the meaning of the icons -- the carvings of gods, the representations of the kings and the symbols that they carried on their dress, headdress and so on. when they came here for the great public ceremonies, they would see these things and understand what they meant. keach: but for today's archaeologists,
the meaning of these symbols is more elusive. at copan, artist barbara fash directs the reconstruction of a building commemorated after the death of king 18 rabbit. the workers are guided by an ancient pattern on a surviving wall. how do scholars interpret patterns like this which don't contain specific information like dates or words ? if you look at the side of the building that was still in place, and you see the regular course of rock going horizontal. and then there are these pieces going diagonally and weaving in with each other, and they form like a herringbone sort of pattern, what it is is it's a mat, with the pieces of the mat weaving in between each other, and that's what you're meant to be seeing.
keach: in all, 10 mats were carved on this building. according to the sixteenth century spanish conquerors, the mat was a maya symbol of authority. the spanish wrote about community houses, where kings and nobles sat on mats as they discussed business. was this a community house ? the team searches for more symbolic evidence. once we documented all the different mats around the building, then we started looking at some of the other motifs that were on the building. and what surprised us was that in between every mat there was a hieroglyph. keach: perhaps the glyphs would clarify the mat symbol. but they had fallen from the wall, and were found in pieces down a steep slope. sorting through the rubble, the team searched for bits of sculpture.
at copan's archaeological laboratory, the fragments sit like giant pieces of a puzzle, waiting to be assembled. barbara and her husband bill begin to compare the stones. perhaps the patterns will line up. success. barbara checks the match on a glyph across four large stones. still, the match is puzzling.
the glyph doesn't spell a mayan word. instead, barbara and bill fash think it might symbolize a family or region on the king's council. what we think is they were sending in their head person, their head person of the mat, to be here at the main community house in the central part of the site core. and here they were conferring and meeting with the head ruler at the time. keach: so this fish, like the other glyphs between the mats, might name a member of the king's council. but these glyphs have also been interpreted as religious icons. the symbolism is not specific enough to confirm that the building is indeed a council house. archaeologists cast a still wider net to look at other evidence of life in eighth century copan. 18 rabbit had been captured and killed.
the hieroglyphic staircase was built by his successors in an attempt to restore their prestige. was the council house also a reaction to the death of 18 rabbit ? moving away from the royal center, archaeologists turn their attention to the important families of the copan valley. how powerful were the heads of these lineages ? might they have sat in council with the copan king ? this residential compound is located a half-mile from the royal center of copan. 40 or 50 impressive stone buildings surround plazas like this one. dominating the compound is the imposing house of the lineage head. it's only partially restored. the original facade was about 23 feet high, with a roof of stone. you think that sample of eight dates is going to pretty much be in the same range ? keach: archaeologists bill sanders and david webster led a four-year excavation at this site, known as the house of the bacabs.
sanders: this is a very impressive household. when we finished excavating all of the buildings and all of the courtyards, we discovered that a population of some 200 to 250 people were close relatives probably or retainers of some kind to a single family and lord who lived in one of the units within this large mass of masonry that you see here. he lived in a very palatial house with a sculpted facade, had a vaulted roof on it. so clearly he was a man of great power and wealth. keach: and what else did the symbolism reveal about this man ? in 1980, excavators began to push heaps of stone and earth aside to reveal walls and steps. archaeologist bill fash was part of the excavation team. fash: during that process we also discovered that the whole building had been covered with sculpture,
because there were literally hundreds of fragments of sculpture. what we wanted to find out was what these symbols meant. why were they placed on the buildings ? what could they tell us about the elite lineage that lived in this particular structure ? keach: the pieces of sculpture are delicate. their sizes vary greatly. the team at copan arranges and rearranges them in a giant sandbox. get it centered a little more, because we're getting over to this side. keach: eventually, the pieces form a neat fit. once they're reconstructed, some of them will be returned to the original site. after we fitted these particular pieces back together in the sandbox, then we wanted to try them out on the building itself and see how they worked out. and we had some good structural evidence that they did actually fit here because they actually mated into the spaces left by the original restoration. in the left hand, the figure is carrying an instrument,
a conch shell that's been cut in half or sectioned. and in looking at other examples of this kind of an instrument or tool in maya art, it's clear that these were used as receptacles for paint. this is basically his paint pot. and what that tells us is that the figure in this niche represents a scribe or a patron of classic maya scribes. keach: the lord of the compound may have been a scribe. he was also one of the most powerful men in eighth century copan. not only did his compound boast ornate sculpture and masonry, he owned an elaborately carved throne. the discovery of this hieroglyphic bench or throne in sepulturas was one of the most exciting moments in the history of archaeology in the copan valley. the text starts with the date, like in all maya inscriptions, telling you when the events took place, in the latter part of the eighth century a.d. after they give you the date,
then they always present you with the verb. the verb is a house dedication ceremony. in fact, in this part of it, you can actually see the glyph for house, with thatching in the roof. so we know that on this date, late in the eighth century a.d., this house or building was dedicated. after the verb, in maya writing, they always give you the name of the person involved in the action. so the house dedication ceremony was performed by an individual whose name appears here. his name is read "makchanal." after that, dave stuart deciphered this glyph to be a parentage statement saying that makchanal was the son of a woman named lady ahau kin. after the mother's name, then they tell you that he was the successor of a man named kukhowil. thereafter they give you some more of the titles of our friend makchanal, all the way to this glyph right here. this was recently read by david stuart as "ah k'ul," which means "courtier."
so what that tells us is that makchanal was a member of the royal court of king yax pac, labelled by this glyph and by the copan emblem or city glyph back here. david's decipherment was of crucial interest to us as archaeologists, because although we were able to predict which sites were the residences of the elite members of copan society, we couldn't know what their role was in the larger scheme of things. keach: other courtier glyphs have been found at copan. these courtiers may have also been scribes, or warrior or artisans. perhaps the king awarded their titles in exchange for loyalty in the years following 18 rabbit's death. the discovery of the courtier glyph exposed a shift in the content of maya inscriptions. for the first time, maya elite were writing not about kings and queens, but about themselves.
at copan we get lots of different people named in the texts who are not the king, who may have been related to the king by blood or political appointment or something. and it's something that we see at other maya sites as well. i interpret this to be a decentralization of the power base that the king once had. the kings were not as important as they once were. there were many nobles who could erect their own inscriptions and feature themselves in the high art. keach: a change was beginning to take place among the eighth century maya. the symbolic evidence is both written and non-written. a nobleman's fortunes seem to be on the rise, while a succession of kings struggle to recover their power after a defeat by foreigners.
the mats and glyphs carved into this building might indeed suggest that kings were sharing their power with noblemen like the scribe. but the search for evidence goes on. the symbolic residue of ancient lives... rich with meaning, shrouded in mystery. each discovery brings new insight. each excavation adds to our understanding. from out of the past, signs and symbols create an astounding portrait of life in ancient societies.
captions by captionamerica, pittsburgh, pa.

Terms of Use (10 Mar 2001)